Accueil » 50-1 ( 1995) » Looking Ahead After Fifty Years

Looking Ahead After Fifty Years

Jean Sexton


Looking Ahead After Fifty Years

In North America, the first thing that springs to mind when one thinks of the concept of collective employee representation is the monopoly model of union representation. This model was first instituted in the United States in 1935, and some ten years later in Canada, and gives the majority union, once certified, the exclusive right to represent a bargaining unit of all or some of the employees of a given employer. Such exclusive representation applies to both collective bargaining and the application of collective agreement provisions. Consequently, collective bargaining through a certified union is presently the only means avallable to give employees as a group a voice in the running of a company. In other respects, employers can exercise their management authority at their discretion, provided of course that they comply with normal legal requirements. This legitimizes a certain autocratie approach in companies.

The North American model of employee representation, based essentially on the institution of unionism and on majority rule, the decisive factor in the representativeness of the certified union, has enjoyed near unanimous acceptance for close to half a century in the field of industrial relations. In recent years, however, it has been widely contested in both Canada and the United States, given the falling unionization rates in the two countries and the new challenges facing company management.

A number of alternatives to the monopoly model of union representation have been proposed in the United States and in Canada. They may be grouped into three main approaches, which we will present and analyze in turn. The first alternative calls for a return to market forces, and thus suggests a greater reliance on the initiative of employees and employers themselves. For instance, many employers have deemed it useful to encourage greater employee participation in their companies. These initiatives take different forms, such as quality circles and works councils.

Nevertheless, all these formulas to promote collective participation by employees suffer from the same weakness, namely, they depend mainly on Personal initiative and unilateral decisions by the employer. A related solution, intended to offset this problem of dependence on the employer's initiative, is to modify the strategics of the union movement by extending its representation activities to cover non-unionized workers, who are now excluded from bargaining units. Although this suggestion may have some merit, its application raises difficulties, in particular with regard to mobilizing this new category of members, the financial resources avallable to represent them, and their potential role in the union movement.

The second approach in the literature, originating mainly in the United States, suggests direct state intervention to require the establishment of an employee committee in every company above a certain size. This proposal, based on the European (and particularly the German) model, represents a complete break with the traditional North American model of employee representation. It is an attractive idea in itself, but we remain sceptical about its effectiveness, given recent experience with direct state intervention in Quebec.

Finally, the third approach, originating mainly in Canada this time, suggests different alternatives to make the current legislation more flexible and allow a greater role for unions within companies. Different proposals have been advanced, in particular that the strict requirement for an absolute majority in order to obtain union certification be abandoned, that certification be by sector, and that the Quebec System of extending collective agreements by means of decrees be enhanced. All these proposals imply a larger role for the union movement within our present day institutions.

Any alternative intended to increase collective participation by employees within their companies is desirable. However, it appears to us that unions are still in the best position to ensure true participation by employees, and this is why we are of the opinion that solutions for the future should be based on the institution of unionism. At the very least, this approach should be given further consideration.


Le monopole de représentation octroyé au syndicat accrédité constitue la caractéristique la plus particulière du régime nord-américain de relations du travail. Il est demeuré pratiquement inchangé depuis plus de cinquante ans, tant au Canada qu'aux États-Unis. Plusieurs critiques ont cependant été formulées à son endroit au cours des dernières années. Le monopole de représentation syndicale est pointé du doigt lorsqu'on veut expliquer la baisse, dramatique aux États-Unis, de la syndicalisation et les difficultés d'implantation de la négociation collective. On dit aussi le monopole de la représentation trop rigide pour s'adapter aux nouveaux modèles de gestion des ressources humaines, populaires dans un nombre croissant d'entreprises. Cet article présente d'abord les principales critiques auxquelles fait face le monopole de représentation syndicale. Par la suite, il analyse et discute les différentes propositions de changement qu'on retrouve dans la littérature nord-américaine.